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Remembering Donald Paneth, Maverick Journalist

Issue 255.5

John Tarleton May 7

Donald Paneth’s long, winding odyssey in journalism began in 1944 when he went to work as a clerk on the New York Times city desk. He was 17-years-old. It ended at The Indypendent when he came out of retirement after the 9/11 attacks to serve as our United Nations correspondent from 2001-2009. Last month, Donald died in a Manhattan nursing home at the age of 93. 

Blunt and at times cantankerous, he also enjoyed an easy rapport with the scruffy young radicals in his midst. He always wore a suit and perfectly-knotted tie even on the hottest day of the summer. The young people around him wore cut-offs and t-shirts. It didn’t matter. Word of his passing sparked an outpouring of responses on social media from his former Indy colleagues.

“What a gift he was.” 

“He was a legend.”

Donald Paneth on Cape Cod in the late 1940s.
Courtesy: Thea Paneth.

“He was such a high point at the paper, so dapper, and so great to talk to.” 

“Donald was a wonderful reporter and a true gentleman, in the best sense. If there was a zen of journalism, he practiced it.”

Donald came to his first Indy editorial meeting in October 2001 after seeing a notice in one of our post-9/11 special editions. The room burned with intensity. Twenty of us sat in a circle. For nearly three hours, we debated what to say in our next issue and how to say it. The old man in the crisp three-piece suit remained silent while jotting in a tiny notebook he held close to his chest. He was an emissary from a bygone age. Finally, he raised his hand. 

“May I say a few words?” He asked.

The Bush administration had invaded Afghanistan a few days earlier. Donald was certain more wars were to come. In his stentorian voice, he told us that he had covered the opening of the United Nations soon after World War II for the Times. Many years later he had worked as the editor of the United Nations Yearbook. He was ready to return to work as The Indypendent’s U.N. correspondent. He felt certain the U.N. and its 15-member Security Council would be an important site in the struggle between war and peace. We were stunned.

Donald stationed himself at the U.N. almost every day in the months leading up to the Iraq War, hustling from one official briefing to the next, taking aside veteran diplomats for the latest scuttlebutt, worrying about what it all meant.  

He became convinced the Bush administration would go to war no matter what the U.N. weapons inspectors said or did. Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction were just the pretext. 

Donald was present on Feb. 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his infamous speech at the U.N. peddling cherry-picked evidence to assert that Iraq was an imminent threat to the U.S. and the world. The U.S. corporate media swooned over Powell’s presentation. Donald was furious. 

“It was all lies,” he said when he returned to The Indy office. And that’s how he wrote it.

***

A writer at work. Courtesy: Thea Paneth.

Donald’s worldview could be broadly described as progressive, but he wasn’t much for ideology and didn’t espouse a political program until the final year of his life. I once asked him if he had been a Red back in the day. Had he been a party guy? Startled, he flinched and his eyes grew wide for a moment. He then looked past me as if he could see McCarthy and his sham congressional hearings, the ruined careers of former colleagues, the Rosenbergs strapped to the electric chair. 

“Oh no!” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t have anything to do with those guys.”

“My dad was an honest journalist and he didn’t like corruption in journalism or anything else,” his son Ira told me after his death. “He thought society should function in an honest way and everyone would live better.”

At the Times, Donald was a boy wonder who quickly rose through the ranks — clerk, news assistant, reporter. On Aug. 14, 1945, as his daughter Thea Paneth recounts, he ran copy from the newsroom to the news booth in Times Square announcing the Japanese surrender, ending World War II. When it went up in lights, pandemonium ensued. Within a year, he was writing Page 1 stories for the Times from the opening of the United Nations, the new international body established “to save the succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” One of the first big stories he covered was about negotiations to resolve a U.S.-Soviet stand-off in Iran.

The Times wanted to send him overseas to work as a foreign correspondent, Thea said. They wanted to groom him to rise. He balked. He didn’t want to be a made man. And being the kind of person you meet more in New York than anywhere else, one who is both cosmopolitan and parochial, he didn’t want to leave his hometown. He wanted to write about it. 

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In 1949, he quit the Times and over the next several years wrote a semi-regular feature (“From the American Scene”) for Commentary, a journal of liberal Jewish thought that later moved far to the right. In its pages, he wrote in lavish detail about quirky New Yorkers he got to know — a pawnbroker, a second-hand clothes peddler, a police reporter, the denizens of an Irish bar. The writing is observational and doesn’t judge but is sprinkled with keen psychological insights. He could have just as easily been writing for the New Yorker, but he didn’t have the Ivy League pedigree.

A profile of the painter William Baziotis fizzled. Donald spent six months in his subject’s company, but he came down with a crippling case of writer’s block when it was time to compose the article. The unpublished manuscript, which he completed almost a decade later, is housed at the Archives of American Art. It was the first time he had failed as a journalist, a memory that still pained him almost seven decades later. He moved on and in 1956 landed as a night rewrite-man at the New York Daily Mirror, a Hearst-owned morning tabloid with the second largest daily circulation in the country after its arch-rival the New York Daily News. (In that era, the pre-Murdoch New York Post owned by Dolly Schiff was still an outpost of genteel liberalism.)

Donald covering an anti-war protest in 1967. Courtesy: Thea Paneth.

Amid the roar of the newsroom, the rewrite-man would take reports called in from the field, draw on other relevant information — whether from his own knowledge of the city or from the newspaper’s “morgue” where old news clippings were on file — and then pound out the story.

“He was fast,” Ira Paneth said. “People said there was no one better in the city.”

Donald thrived at the Daily Mirror. He had the pulse of the city at his fingertips every night. The reporters he worked with were mostly older, crustier, hard-drinking men who would do whatever it took to get the story in a city with seven dailies. They had none of the pretensions of his former colleagues at the Times and self-mockingly referred to their stories as “pieces of shit.”

“He loved those guys,” Thea said.

On Oct. 16, 1963, the Daily Mirror published its last issue, a victim of the Great Newspaper Strike of 1962-63 that also contributed to the death of the Herald-Tribune, the Journal-American and the World-Telegram Sun. Many of Donald’s older co-workers never landed another newspaper job and would die early of alcoholism and other deaths of despair. With a wife and two small children, Donald soldiered on but “the grief of losing the Daily Mirror stayed with him the rest of his life,” Thea Paneth said. 

Donald moved on to the Medical Tribune, a weekly that reached upwards of 600,000 doctors a month. Thanks to its owner Arthur Sackler, its staff was liberally populated with reporters who had lost their jobs a decade earlier during the Red Scare. Donald would go on to teach journalism at the City University of New York, return to the United Nations to edit its annual yearbook and author The Encyclopedia Of American Journalism, a 531-page behemoth filled with briskly written entries.

***

Thea recalls Donald was “complaining bloody murder” about the post-9/11 political situation. He had believed for decades that the U.S. addiction to militarism made any lasting social progress impossible. And now the war drums were banging, again. She urged him to follow up on the open meeting notice he had seen in our paper.

Donald never lacked for an opinion. Photo: John Tarleton.

In Donald, we had gained more than a contributing writer. A former Times reporter volunteering at The Indy? It seemed so implausible yet there he was at every single meeting. In our early, formative days it told us we mattered, that we were capable of doing great work if we reached for it. In personal conversations with young journalists, he was always ready to offer an encouraging word.

Left-wing projects in which there are only young people can lack perspective on both life and history. Donald’s presence made us a multi-generational newspaper, one where volunteers in their late teens, 20s and 30s regularly interacted with someone pushing 80. This was a good thing.

For Donald, returning as The Indy’s U.N. correspondent allowed him to relive the glory days of his youth while doing meaningful work. According to Thea, being a part of The Indy community also helped to salve the wound left by the demise of the Daily Mirror.

***

When my father, a former high school quarterback, was in his fifties he could still chuck a football far downfield, laying it in the outstretched hands of a sprinting receiver. By his late-70s, he could only throw the ball 10 yards. But, he still had the same wrist snap and every pass arrived with a tight spiral, right on target.  

Donald’s days of writing 5,000-word pieces for Commentary were long past. Most of his articles for The Indy filled a half-page or less. His writing style, minimalist and straight to the point. The tight spiral was still there. 

He would argue for an article of his if it was trimmed or cut from the paper (having a “web exclusive” didn’t mean much to this old newshound) but would graciously concede if he didn’t prevail. Waving the back of his hand, as if brushing aside a fly only he could see, he would say, “Fine, that’s what we’ll do.”

After nearly eight years at The Indy, Donald moved on. Nothing much was happening at the UN. I had taken a full-time job at a labor union newspaper. He said he wanted to focus on writing poetry and finishing a novel. 

I fell out of touch with Donald for several years. Then one night I got a call from him. 

The author shares a Thanksgiving meal with Donald Paneth, Nov. 2017. Photo: Elia Gran.

Jawn, I need to speak with you,” he said, inviting me to meet him for dinner. He had read about my return to The Indy and said he had something important to share when we met. It turned out to be about the United Nations, of course. 

Read (most) of Donald’s stories for The Indy.

I subsequently invited him to The Indypendent’s 15th-anniversary party. He was 88. His eyesight was failing. He was hard of hearing. It didn’t matter. He had a grand time seeing old friends from the paper, all of whom wanted to talk with him. 

After that, we settled into a routine in which I would visit him at his ground-floor Washington Heights apartment each month after we went to press. It was spacious inside. Dusty bookshelves were lined with titles he could no longer read. Neatly stacked piles of Manila folders along one side of the main room contained the manuscripts of his unpublished novels. One was dedicated to his long-deceased wife Elma whose painting of a brightly-colored flower arrangement hung prominently on the wall. That day’s New York Times sat on the table by the window where we talked.

Donald catches up with former Indypendent culture editor Irina Ivanova at The Indy’s 250th issue party, Oct. 2019. Photo: John Tarleton.

When I was growing up, I envied friends who had a grandfather. Both of mine had died before I was born. My grandmothers outlived them but were in poor health and mentally gone. One way or another we create the familial relationships we need. I embraced the moment and ran with it.

With each visit, I would bring him the new issue of The Indy. His first question was always the same.

“So what’s on the cover?”

His face would light up as he flipped through the pages for the first time, though he could only make out the headlines. I would summarize each article in the paper and read two or three that he requested. We put Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the cover of our June 2018 issue. When I showed it to him, he was perplexed. After she won her upset primary victory, he called and left a congratulatory voice message the next morning in four words with a dramatic pause between each one: “You. Got. The. Story.” 

That felt good.

He was still elated the next time I saw him. “You scooped the New York Times,” he crowed. “You scooped the whole damn lot of ’em.”

***

Donald’s body was slowly falling apart. He was gaunt and walked with a hunch, never lifting his feet off the ground. He had a regimen of pills he took each day. But, his mind remained sharp and lucid. 

Our conversations would range far and wide from current events and the state of the world to his pantheon of favorite writers, philosophers, and artists, especially the abstract expressionists. One night he told me he had figured out something important. After decades of weighing the merits of capitalism vs. communism and not feeling comfortable with either,  he had come to the realization that he was a “democratic socialist” thanks to Bernie Sanders’ first presidential campaign. He seemed relieved. 

He spent much of his last couple of years staying at the Upper East Side apartment of a close friend who took good care of him while carrying the burdens of her own advanced age. 

An Indy contingent visits Donald on Feb. 20, 2020. Clockwise from lower left: Nicholas Powers, John Tarleton, Ellen Davidson, Alina Mogilyanskaya and Elia Gran (via smartphone). Photo: Georgia Hershfeld.

He often said he wanted to return to working on the paper. I told him that wasn’t possible, that he should consider himself to be a special advisor instead. Upon his request, I returned his name to our Page 2 masthead.

In January, Donald went into a final downward spiral. The tense stand-off between the United States and Iran, following Trump’s drone strike assassination of General Qasem Suleimani, is, to my mind, what sent him over the edge. The prospect of another U.S. war in the Middle East agitated him day and night just as it had after 9/11. He began to complain of intense pain that doctors couldn’t locate. Finally, he was hospitalized at a nursing home on East 79th Street. 

He enjoyed seeing visitors but was deeply unhappy about his loss of independence. He told a friend he wanted to die. In mid-February, a crew of a half-dozen Indy folks visited him late on a Thursday afternoon. He delighted in the company, holding court for two hours and eating for the first time in several days. Maybe he just wanted friendship?

My final visit with Donald was on the night of Feb. 28. He was exhausted. He hadn’t slept in two nights due to the television sets that were blaring away for the amusement of the dementia patients warehoused to his right and his left. He was relieved to see me. Given the circumstances, I didn’t bother wishing him a happy 93rd birthday. He was in a somber, reflective mood. He had blazed his own path but was a man not without regrets. He asked about the election. I told him Bernie had won big in Nevada and was barreling toward Super Tuesday with an inside track to the nomination. “I would do anything to see that man elected president,” he murmured.

The Indy was scheduled to go to press that night. I had raced over to the nursing home after tweaking the final headline. The paper was now in the hands of our designer in California who was doing final checks with the issue PDF. I called our print shop in Queens and urged them to keep us on that night’s roster. We had a fleet of vans ready to pick up and distribute the new issue first thing in the morning. I held my phone in one hand and Donald’s hand in my other. I explained what was going on. He listened intently. Perhaps his thoughts flashed back to the Daily Mirror.

When I got word that the issue had been sent to the printer, I called back to the pre-press room in Queens. They confirmed everything was good to go and the printing would begin shortly. I thanked them and hung up.

“The presses are ready to roll,” I told Donald. “We’re going to have a new issue.”

“That’s good,” he exhaled. “That’s real good.”

-30-

Addendum: The Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center barred visitors in early March due to growing concerns about the novel coronavirus. Donald died there on April 6 at the height of the pandemic in a quieter sunlit room. His cause of death is unknown.

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